As the world’s most famous woman alpinist during the 1990s, Catherine Destivelle learned all about the highs and lows at the top of her sport. Now she’s on the jury of the Piolets d’Or it seems not much has changed. She talks to Ed Douglas about the pressures of stardom, her plans for the future – and Ueli Steck.
‘Mountain climbing was always the best thing for me,’ Catherine Destivelle says. ‘Competitions were an accident. I was a physiotherapist, in another world, and then in the mid 1980s somebody asked me to do a film, and from that I got an invitation to Bardonecchia for the first ever competition. I was against them as an idea, but my friends told me I would do well, that I was good. So I went there and won.’
Almost overnight, Destivelle was propelled into the spotlight as, alongside Lynn Hill, one of the best female rock climbers in the world. Her success marked the start of an intensive period of sport climbing that culminated in her becoming the first woman to climb 8a+.
Yet before she quit climbing to study physiotherapy, Destivelle had been a mountaineering prodigy. She climbed the American Direct on the Dru aged barely 17; she also did hard routes on the north faces of the Olan and the Ailefroide in the Écrins. Competitions and sport climbing might have given her a public profile but her heart was in the mountains.
She is still the only woman to have soloed the north faces of the Eiger, the Grandes Jorasses and the Matterhorn in winter. And alongside her alpine successes, in the early 1990s she was on a number of Himalayan expeditions, climbing Trango Tower free in 1990 and repeating the Troillet-Lorétan-Kurtyka route on Shisha Pangma in 1994, although without the summit.
Twenty years on from the height of her fame, she’s once again taking a close interest in high-end alpinism, although now as someone on the outside looking in; she has been recruited to the jury for this year’s Piolets d’Or – world mountaineering’s annual glance in the mirror. Organisers hope Destivelle’s profile, her passion for alpinism and her trad values in the mountains will catch the mainstream media’s attention.
‘There’s far too much in the media about Everest,’ Destivelle says. ‘Real alpinism needs more publicity. The Piolets d’Or should be a big party; it’s a moment when the media can talk about what’s really happening. They never speak about alpinism now; they just speak about accidents and tragedies, like the avalanche on Manaslu.’
Her last high-profile expedition was in 1996 to Antarctica with her then husband Érik Decamp; they made a first ascent but Destivelle badly broke a leg. The following year she became pregnant and took a conscious decision to step back from the committing lifestyle of an expedition climbing to focus on her son Victor.
After writing and lecturing to earn her living, in recent years she has set up her own publishing company, Les Éditions du Mont-Blanc; one of her current projects is collating mountaineering coverage from the iconic magazine Paris Match, which captured many of the landmark moments in French alpinism.
‘The magazine helped the image of French mountaineering a lot,’ she says, adding that the media now are not quite so interested. ‘They don’t understand what young climbers are doing. They don’t know the mountains. And there are so many wonderful images of adventurers that they’re actually bored. You have to bring back incredible images, which are almost impossible to get at high altitude.’
Her own career got a significant boost from Paris Match, laughing guiltily when she admits the magazine carried no less than 15 stories about her. ‘For me, it was like magic,’ she says. ‘But I couldn’t bear to read them. I was a bit ashamed. They liked to speak about my love life, and that was difficult for me. I tried to hide from it all a bit. But my sponsors were happy and they were a way to help me live as I wanted to live.’
They also made her very famous. People still approach her. ‘They’re always nice,’ she says. ‘And it’s useful with the gendarmes when I get stopped. Of course, when I go to a climbing gym everyone recognises me and is watching. And I’m not very fit these days. I just climb because I want to have fun.’
There are some deeply impressive ascents among the nominated climbs, and a lifetime achievement award for John Roskelly, but perhaps inevitably, she’s taken a strong interest in the Ueli Steck’s lightning fast ascent of a new route on Annapurna’s south face. Annapurna means a lot to the French in general and Destivelle in particular.
She went to the south face with Decamp in 1994, just two years after the death of their friend Pierre Béghin who was attempting a similar line to the one Steck climbed last year. It was the last big mountain she tried. She is also friends with the two French climbers, Stéphane Benoist and Yannick Graziani, who just days later made the second ascent.
Catherine Destivelle is well aware that there is scepticism in some quarters surrounding Ueli Steck’s ascent. Christian Trommsdorff, the awards organiser, has a sheaf of emails from prominent journalists and climbers, including past winners of the award, questioning Steck’s claim to one of the most audacious achievements in the history of mountaineering and consequently its inclusion for this year’s prize.
These are murky waters, but the kernel of their allegations is Steck’s lack of proof. He says he dropped his camera at 7,000m and didn’t turn on the GPS function on his watch to conserve its battery. The hardest sections of the climb were done at night.
Destivelle, perhaps conscious of the immense effort from Graziani and Benoist, who lost fingers to frostbite, is clearly uncomfortable about the issue. ‘I’m not saying he didn’t do it,’ she says. ‘But we should have proof.’
There’s no requirement in the Piolets d’Or for supplying proof, but Trommsdorff suggests that may change. ‘You’re a pro in everything else, why not in measuring what you do? You cannot use the media only when you want to.’
Even so, he is supportive of Steck, pointing out that Benoist and Graziani believe his account. Steck’s Sherpa support staff at base camp and advance base claimed recently to have seen his head torch high on the mountain.
The doubts have been a trial for Steck, who acknowledges that not recording his climb was an error: 'I will never have a proof. I lost my camera and unfortunately I cannot make this unhappen. Solo climbing is really hard to prove, especially in the Himalaya. I learned a lot from Annapurna. I was not giving enough attention to proof. My mistake.'
Controversy is never far away at the Piolets d’Or; last year the French media company that co-produces the event was outraged when all the nominated ascents won a prize. Gender is another sensitive subject. Only one woman, the Japanese Kei Taniguchi, has ever won a Piolet d’Or since the prize was launched in 1992. She was honoured in 2009 for her first ascent of Kamet’s southeast face with Kazuya Hiraide.
Not surprisingly, Trommsdorff and his colleagues at the Piolets d’Or are contemplating an award for female alpinists when the current contractual arrangements for the Piolets d’Or come to an end this year. But there will be diverging views on whether there should be a special prize for female alpinists.
Destivelle has never contradicted the idea that being a woman gave her career a boost. ‘It’s true; it’s life. I was lucky to be a woman.’ Then again, there aren’t many climbers of any gender who laugh as often as she does in the course of an interview. A good chunk of her fame was down to her sense of fun, the idea that she was enjoying her life in the mountains.
Her son Victor hasn’t followed her into the mountains; now aged 16 she says his passion is as a jazz musician. When he takes off, Destivelle says she may well go back to the Himalaya to try some lower, more technical peaks. ‘In the mountains you can still feel alive,’ she says. ‘You come back home and you have the feeling something happened out there. It’s an adventure. That’s why I still like it, even if it’s easy. I come back now after a couple of days and I’m happy.’
Piolet d'Or 2014
View the 2014 nominations